University of British Columbia’s senate defeated a motion to cut ties with Israeli universities

By a vote of 49 to 16, the Vancouver Senate of the University of British Columbia rejected a motion put forward June 3 at a special meeting—the first held at the school during the 2023-24 academic year—to cut or suspend ties with Israeli government entities, including public universities, after discussing the issue for 90 minutes.

The motion was brought by university senators Brenna Bhandar and Jasper Lorien and held in a closed-door meeting. Their motion proposed that UBC end collaboration with Israeli academic institutions because Israel’s actions in Gaza “constitute a plausible risk to the rights of Palestinians to be protected from genocide,”  a Palestinian professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was suspended, and some universities in Israel have “direct ties to the Israeli military.”

In letters to the senators ahead of the meeting, which was chaired by UBC President Benoit-Antonie Bacon, a wide array of groups expressed their concerns regarding the harmful consequences of passing the motion.

The Jewish Academic Alliance argued that, while it is “understandable” that some would be outraged by the events in Gaza, “the costs of an academic boycott—to the pursuit of knowledge, to the academic mandate, to academic freedom, to our community, and to principles of fairness and equity—cannot be justified.”

A boycott of Israeli institutions of higher learning, the academics maintained, would have an effect contrary to the one intended by the two senators who proposed the motion. It would, they said, provide no benefits, damage the prospects for peace in the region, limit the self-determination of Palestinians and weaken the voices of Israeli academics.

Instead, they recommended that the university should affirm “the high value of rigorous and prolific academic research and criticism in producing new knowledge and shedding light on common goals of peace and justice, compassion, and care for all the vulnerable lives in the affected region and elsewhere in the world.”

Dr. Karen Gelmon, a medical oncologist, professor of medicine and chair of the UBC/BC Cancer Research Ethics Board, brought to the attention of the UBC Vancouver Senate that Israeli academics have been at the forefront of the nation’s peace movement and have demonstrated against the current government. She added that UBC has not sanctioned other countries whose humanitarian actions might be called into question.

“Cutting ties with (Israeli universities) will not solve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza but will restrict and limit fruitful dialogue between progressive-minded academics looking to collaborate and learn. These persons would be punished with a ruling from UBC,” Gelmon said.

“They are not spokespeople for the Israeli government. We have not had these rulings for Chinese universities despite the treatment of the Uyghurs, or universities in the U.S. which are in states that discriminate against women by limiting their reproductive rights.”

Gregg Gardner, a professor of Jewish studies at UBC, pointed out the dangers a boycott would have to the university and its students. 

“For me, the threat to academic freedom is not abstract,” Gardner wrote to the UBC Senate.  “It is very real, immediate, and concrete. I wake up every morning wondering if I will be able to do my job that day. Research and teaching in Jewish Studies requires engaging with sources and resources in Israel on a regular basis, collaborating with Israeli scholars, institutions, and universities.

“Cutting ties formally, or enabling and legitimizing intimidation, demonization, and isolation—a de facto boycott—will prevent me from doing my teaching and research, and directly impinge upon my academic freedom.”

In collaboration with Hebrew University, Gardner is the co-director of the excavation of Horvat Midras, Israel, a site inhabited by various groups from the 4th to the 16th century. He said it would be very challenging for researchers from around the world to work on such projects, through collaborating and exchanging ideas, were it not for formal ties with Israeli universities.

The UBC Vancouver Senate is responsible for all academic matters on campus, such as admissions, examination policy, academic discipline and student awards. There are 85 members of the UBC Vancouver Senate, 18 of whom are students from the various departments at the university.  Each student is elected to a one-year term.

According to the rules and procedures of the Vancouver UBC Senate, 18 senators must send in a written request to the chair for a special meeting to be called. The CJN has learned that many of the student senators at the meeting supported the motion, while the majority of faculty in attendance were opposed. 

In a social media post, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs commended the UBC Senate for its vote, writing, “We are encouraged to see a principled stand within the UBC Senate today in the face of a motion attempting to sever ties with Israeli academic institutions.

“The votes overwhelmingly against such anti-academic actions confirm the importance of critical underpinnings of UBC’s commitment to institutional and academic priorities, including academic freedom, intellectual rigour, partnerships, joint research projects, and student mobility. We thank the students, professors, and administrators who took the time to address the motion and protect the integrity of UBC.”

On April 25, the senate at UBC’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna passed a motion that condemned Israel for invading Gaza and supported those, including Israeli citizens, who peacefully oppose the war.